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Intelligent Debate

To the Editors:

Pat Shipman's timely piece "Being Stalked by Intelligent Design" (Marginalia, November-December) confirms the impression I have that the teaching of biology in the United States is in crisis. It is high time the conflict was carried into the opposition's camp. Since the purported Intelligent Designer is clearly God (despite the disclaimers of the theory's advocates) we are faced with the old God-of-the-Gaps argument: There is a supposed lacuna in some theory or an absence of evidence of how things went from A to B, therefore (a) it happened by divine agency, and simultaneously (b) this "proves" God exists. This is surely rotten theology, at least for the thinking believer. First, as the gaps are filled by observation and experiment, God gets squeezed out; second, if God exists there should be a cast-iron proof of his existence quite independent of an alleged need to postulate him to explain something.

Moreover, intelligent design (ID) theory is suspect for this reason: It is not the case that an apparent gap in our knowledge must require a supernatural explanation if a naturalistic one is not immediately available. There is a third possibility: There is a naturalistic explanation which is not yet available to us, and is perhaps beyond our present level of understanding. The ID theorists dishonestly choose to ignore this, by insisting that the gaps are unbridgeable, while at the same time shouting that science doesn't have all the answers—indeed it doesn't, which is what makes science worth a lifetime's work.

Timothy J. R. Weakley
Dundee, Scotland

To the Editors:

I agree with Pat Shipman that we must face this assault on our profession, but I wonder if we are missing a major point?

As a child of the 1940s, I grew up in a scientifically exciting era. Our power over the material world was going to establish a peaceful and prosperous Earth. Now, some 60 years later, it is clear that the promises have not been kept. I don't mean to suggest that our science has not given us anything. But these gifts are only available to those who are healthy enough and educated enough to take advantage of them. Too many of our citizens are frightened and hurting, and the advances of science are irrelevant to them. It is no wonder that they are looking elsewhere for a hopeful vision. There is a vacuum of faith, and the supporters of intelligent design are capitalizing on this to offer what looks like a warm spiritual answer to what they portray as our current cold materialism. Theirs is a seductive vision, indeed; it will take a long time for people to realize that faith alone will not solve global warming.

I have no easy solutions to offer either, but perhaps we need to focus attention on an issue science has traditionally not addressed: What does a human being need to be healthy and fulfilled? In a world where everything seems to be for sale, perhaps we need to humanize our profession, express its ideals more clearly and extend its mantra to include and respect those aspects of human life it is not directly equipped to speak to. What could be more important?

Helen T. Ghiradella
State University of New York at Albany

To the Editors:

Inclusion of intelligent design in public school curricula need not be detrimental to teaching science. The thesis asserted by Pat Shipman is poignant, yet the proposed solution to show ID as "religious prejudice masked as intellectual freedom" exacerbates the controversy.

An alternative tactic is to show students in the classroom routinely that the theory of evolution is supported by empirical data required by the scientific method, yet faith-based ID is not, despite the ploy, "argument by incredulity."

It is not necessary for a high school student to "decide" between the hypothesis of ID or the theory of evolution. Rather than taking a puritanical approach to science, pedagogically, let the good judgment of the science teacher prevail in the classroom.

William F. Vitulli
University of South Alabama, Mobile

To the Editors:

I was amazed and appalled at the paranoia reflected by Pat Shipman. What the author fails to recognize are the obvious philosophical and theological assumptions that are expressed in her attack on intelligent design. The article objected to the fact that "the main premise of ID is that the living organisms on Earth are so complex and intricately constructed that they cannot plausibly have arisen through the unguided action of natural selection, so there must be an 'intelligent designer.'" By extrapolation you can say that her position is that all of the universe can be explained by an unguided, random chance mechanism. This, of course, can never be proven scientifically and so must be accepted by faith alone. This is every bit as much a philosophical or religious position. In teaching science to students, why should one religion or worldview be sanctioned and the other excluded?

David H. Jones
Grove City College, PA

Dr. Shipman responds:

I thank the dozens of readers who sent thoughtful responses to my column.

Contrary to Dr. Jones's assessment, it is not paranoid to be alarmed by a group whose openly avowed goal is to destroy the primacy of science and the scientific method. American science has brought benefits to millions.

I would applaud the inclusion of intelligent design in a comparative religion class dealing with four or five major world religions. Such a class would provide occasion for teachers and students to discuss the emotional and spiritual needs of humans, a subject deserving great attention, as Dr. Ghiradella points out.

Intelligent Design should not be taught in science classes because it is not a testable hypothesis. The essence of science is expressed in two questions: How would you know? And what evidence would prove this idea wrong? An idea unsupported by evidence, that is incapable of being proven wrong by evidence, is not science.

In contrast, thousands of predictions made on the basis of evolutionary theory are tested daily by the fossil record, by genetic experiments and by myriad observations of events such as the mutation of avian flu into a disease that infects humans. Evolution is repeatedly revealed to be a major mechanism of change in living organisms. 

Was the mechanism of natural selection initiated by a supreme being?  How would we know?

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